So I Just Saw Disney’s Treasure Planet

Confession time.

I kinda like this movie.

It’s not perfect, but given that it came out in 2002 when Disney’s traditional animation projects were waning in quality, I think it’s a lot better than its peers.

Treasure Planet poster.jpg

I think this film mostly just suffered from releasing the same year as Spirited Away. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Treasure Planet is Disney’s animated adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.  It follows Jim Hawkins, a troubled teenager who sets off on an adventure after an aging spacer named Billy Bones gives him a map leading to Treasure Planet, the hiding place of the infamous Captain Flint.  The broad strokes of the story follow those of Treasure Island closely, with Jim becoming a cabin boy on the ship that’s hired to look for the treasure, where he meets Long John Silver, the ship’s cook and secret leader of the pirate crew that plans to take control of the ship and keep the treasure for themselves.  The ship’s first mate falls overboard, the pirates mutiny, and Jim and a handful of officers loyal to Captain Smollett (who gets wounded in their escape from the ship) make it to the planet where they meet the castaway Ben who helps them reach the treasure.  The Captain’s party eventually get the upper hand on Silver’s crew and leave the island with Silver in tow.  On the voyage home, Silver manages to escape.

Major differences in the plot revolve around the relationship between Jim and Silver.  In this version of events, Jim’s father has been absent for a long time (instead of having just died a few days prior to the events of the story), and the boy frequently gets in trouble with the local police due to his lack of an authority figure (Jim’s mother, who runs the family inn by herself, struggles to help her son, although it’s clear that she’s stretched pretty thin just trying to manage the business).  When Jim joins the voyage to find the treasure, he’s put directly under the charge of Silver, who provides real mentorship on the journey.  This dynamic of friendliness between Silver and Jim is present in all versions of the story, but here the bond is made significantly stronger as Silver isn’t just kind to Jim, but also teaches him how to be a good spacer and encourages him to find a direction for his life.  In the movie’s climax where Treasure Planet is self destructing, Silver even chooses to give up the treasure in order to save Jim’s life, and at the end, when Silver makes his escape, Jim catches him in the act but lets him go on good terms (this scene particularly stands out in my mind because of its differences with the same scene from Muppet Treasure Island where Jim lets Silver go, but he makes it clear that he’s not forgiven the pirate for betraying him, and he never wants to see him again).  Overall it’s an interesting dynamic, simply because Silver doesn’t come off as quite the villain he usually appears to be.

Besides Jim and Silver’s relationship, which is the focal point of the story, the other characters are pretty well drawn.  I find the character of Ben the robot more annoying than anything, but he shows up late in the story and has minimal screen time, so I can overlook that obligatory ridiculous funny character meant to entertain the kids.  Captain Smollett has been turned into a Strong Female Character ™, which would be annoying in other circumstances, but here I feel inclined to give it a pass because a)besides being made female and pairing her with Dr. Doppler, her story arc mirrors that of the original Captain Smollett, meaning that her injury during the mutiny isn’t something that happens just because she’s a woman who needs to be incapacitated for the climax, and b)her competency is never used as a measuring stick for Jim’s own growth, because he doesn’t surpass the captain but develops skills that complement her leadership.  Unfortunately, Smollett’s the only major female character in the story, as Jim’s mother gets sidelined after the first act because she doesn’t want to go on the voyage, which means that this movie fails the Bechdel test rather spectacularly, despite being set in an alternate sci-fi-ish universe with no discernible reason that women wouldn’t be common as spacers (there’s no hint of the ridiculous sailor superstitions about women on boats, so the fact that most of the spacers we see read as male seems more like lazy design than an attempt at creating a specific social atmosphere).

Stepping away from characters, I briefly want to touch on the music in this movie.  This is from Disney’s “we’re not making animated musicals” era, so the music is mostly orchestral (and it’s good orchestral music, by the way) with a couple of pop songs used as background over character building montages (“nothing you can’t do with a montage!”).  Fortunately, Phil Collins isn’t anywhere to be heard; the pop songs were actually written and recorded for the movie by John Rzeznik, the frontman for the Goo Goo Dolls, and I think they’re pretty good as pop music goes.

As for visuals, this film’s a strange beast because it’s mostly a combination of traditionally animated characters imposed on CG backgrounds (John Silver being a notable hybrid with his CG cybernetic limbs).  By today’s standards the CG looks dated, but the visual style meshes well with the characters so when the characters are on screen, you mostly don’t think, “that’s CG in the background.”  Having CG sets does allow this movie to do something that previous Disney movies have been unable to incorporate, which is dynamic camera movement.  If you think about, say, The Little Mermaid, that film was almost entirely static shots, and the few dynamic ones (particularly the shot of Ariel running down the stairs in Eric’s palace) were rare because they took so much extra work (that staircase shot involved making a CG wireframe of the set, transposing it to cels, and hand coloring them; it’s a beautiful shot, but it’s just impractical).  With Treasure Planet, so many shots were dynamic that I found myself more surprised when I noticed a static scene with a traditional background.

Overall, I have to admit how surprised I was that I enjoyed revisiting this movie.  All I remembered prior to my recent viewing was that this was a film I remember thinking was extremely beautiful (I remember seeing the trailer for it in a theater and thinking, “That looks like an animated movie worth watching”), but otherwise unmemorable.  It probably doesn’t help that it was released the same year Disney distributed the English language release of Spirited Away, which naturally blew every other animated movie out of the water that year.  The verdict after seeing Treasure Planet again is that it deserves another look.

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